Social Physics and Algorithmic Prisons


I. “Prom Week”

When I was in school, I attended a lecture given by Michael Mateas, who talked a bit about videogames involving social interaction. Mateas was already well-known for Facade (actual game here), and was working on a new game called “Prom Week”.

“Prom Week” was developed to explore the gap that I’ve touched on (channeling Bogost) while discussing the Sims and Grand Theft Auto- the missing “social” aspect that the player is expected to infer.

Prom Week is a next-generation social simulation game driven by a novel artificial intelligence engine. The goal of Prom Week is to make social interactions truly playable. While games have increasingly gotten better at physical simulation, social interactions in games still tend to be scripted, using dialogue trees or other static structures to represent in-game choice. As a result, games are more often about combat or physics-based behaviors (which are easier to make playable) since these simulations are the only part of the system dynamic enough for interesting gameplay.

Prom Week uses the AI system Comme il Faut (CiF) to enable rich, emergent storylines by letting players use “social physics.” Just as games like Angry Birds support emergent solutions to physical challenges, Prom Week’s underlying simulation of social considerations (containing over 5,000 rules of social norms and behaviors) allow for emergent solutions to social challenges, like getting geeky Simon a prom date or convincing Buzz to give Monica a second chance. And unlike games like The Sims which use abstractions such as nonsense words or icons to represent language, Prom Week features actual English dialogue, and characters with detailed histories, likes, dislikes, permanent traits, and temporary statuses—all of which can be leveraged by the player to produce just the right prom night story.

The system underlying the game could be used for other purposes.

In the case of Prom Week, we’re figuring out how to build computational models of social interaction, allowing players to explore the social consequences of their actions,” said Dr. Michael Mateas, director of the Center for Games and Playable Media and UC Santa Cruz. “Once you’ve developed a new capability like this, it can be used for all kinds of purposes, including education and training.”

It’s the training aspects that might be of most interest to those who, like Coburn, apparently don’t think the public is getting its money’s worth out of the Prom Week grant. Mateas says Prom Week‘s social modeling technology has since been adapted for use in a scenario-based simulation used to help soldiers and police “cope in unfamiliar cultural contexts and [help] them to get their jobs done in a way that minimizes escalation and loss of life.” Another project is using the Prom Week technology to help prevent bullying among middle school children.


II. Algorithmic Prison

What a great phrase for the new relative ease that computerization allows for the bureaucratic nightmare to flourish. Recall, again, the apprehension of the ’60s about computerization, becoming reduced to a punchcard, lost in a big machine.

Some can no longer get loans or cash checks. Others are being offered only usurious credit-card interest rates. Many have trouble finding employment because of their Internet profiles. Others may have trouble purchasing property, life, and automobile insurance because of algorithmic predictions. Algorithms may select some people for government audits, while leaving others to find themselves undergoing gratuitous and degrading airport screening.


Algorithms also constrain our lives in virtual space. They determine what products we will be exposed to. They analyze our interests and play an active role in selecting the things we see when we go to a particular website..

Eli Pariser, argues in The Filter Bubble, “You click on a link, which signals your interest in something, which means you are more likely to see articles about that topic” and then “you become trapped in a loop.” The danger being that you emerge with a very distorted view of the world.


Algorithmic prisons are not new. Even before the Internet, credit reporting and rating agencies were a power in our economy. Fitch’s, Moody’s, and Standard & Poor’s have been rating business credit for decades. Equifax, the oldest credit rating agency, was founded in 1899.

When algorithms get it right (and in general they do a pretty good job), they provide extremely valuable services to the economy. They make our lives safer. They make it easier to find the products and services we want. Amazon constantly alerts me to books it correctly predicts I will want to read. They increase the efficiency of businesses.


Most of us would not be concerned if 10 or 100 times too many people ended up on the TSA’s enhanced airport screening list as long as an airplane hijacking was avoided. In times when jobs are scarce and applicants many, most employers would opt for tighter algorithmic screening. There are lots of candidates to hire and more harm may be done by hiring a bad apple than by missing a potentially good new employee. And avoiding bad loans is key to the success of banks. Missing out on a few good ones in return for avoiding a big loss is a decent trade off.

But we’ve reached the point where, in many cases, private companies and public institutions stand to gain more than they will lose if a lot of innocent people end up in algorithmic prison.


Even if an algorithmic prisoner knows he is in a prison, he may not know who his jailer is. Is he unable to get a loan because of a corrupted file at Experian or Equifax? Or could it be TransUnion? His bank could even have its own algorithms to determine a consumer’s creditworthiness. Just think of the needle-in-a-haystack effort consumers must undertake if they are forced to investigate dozens of consumer-reporting companies, looking for the one that threw them behind algorithmic bars. Now imagine a future that contains hundreds of such companies.

A prisoner might not have any idea as to what type of behavior got him sentenced to a jail term. Is he on an enhanced screening list at an airport because of a trip he made to an unstable country, a post on his Facebook page, or a phone call to a friend who has a suspected terrorist friend?

Finally, how does one get his name off an enhanced screening list or correct a credit report? Each case is different. The appeal and pardon process may be very difficult—if there is one.



I’ve decided to go ahead with Sandy Pentland’s Social Physics, and I’ll share notes here. My last major exposure to his perspective was from lecture he gave at Carnegie Mellon when I was there, where he touched on his thesis from Honest Signals (which I have not read). The talk was actually about a system called “Reality Mining.” I expect that, contra some of the reviews I’ve read, Pentland will carefully navigate the obvious “Smart City“-style problems in Social Physics. It would be pretty disappointing to see him slip into those ruts.

Another book in the wings- Sunstein’s new(ish) book, which I just purchased on a whim. It had a terrible score on Amazon, because conspiracies. I expect to enjoy it, as long as it doesn’t retread too much on his older material. (In my opinion, “Simpler” had a little bit too much of “Nudge” in it).


The New Games Movement

I. Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt.

I’m returning again to Stewart Brand, the Counterculture, and tying it back in to my long-running series of notes on game studies.

Someone- I forget who and it’s probably unimportant- was observing puppies play, and interpreted their play as an exchange of signals: “I could hurt you if I really wanted to, but I don’t.” Innocent play was a way to explore social interactions and each other without fear of significant damage. Even rough play could be done safely as long as all puppies continued to signal that they weren’t feeling threatened or hurt. Personally, I enjoy the intense competitive experience.

Anyway, given their attitude and history, it’s sensible that play and games might become a preoccupation of some of the Counterculture’s focus. As you might guess, they were interested in games that foster friendliness and cooperation, [and sometimes vertigo].

Continue reading

Mulling: Machines and Theories

I’ve been overworking a bit. I still wrote a little bit but nothing too coherent. (What else is new.)

Part of my problem was that I temporarily stopped flying, and those three-hour sessions of confinement (plus the free drinks) were a big part of my usual writing ritual for this blog. I’m in the air again, so here we are.

I’ve been reading Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, like everyone else on the planet. I’m interested in finally reading Perez’ Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (-plenty of notes out there on the internet, may not read the source material directly?) I’ve purchased Sandy Pentland’s Social Physics, which I might put notes up on if it’s sufficiently different and interesting.

(The next post that looks ready to finish is dipping back into some counterculture stuff, but this time about games.)


Broadly speaking, there are two types of intelligences I expect to wrangle with regularly on a given project. They can speak to each other, albeit a little clunkily.

The first kind is not very industrious but is very adaptable. We like to put them to work on fuzzier, more poorly-defined tasks.

The second kind is very literal-minded but incredibly industrious. If a process can be crystallized enough, this kind of intelligence will blow the first kind right out of the water.

Communication errors abound, naturally. The onus of outlining project requirements and communicating effectively is still on the first intelligence, the humans.

The second kind is evolving to be able to emulate the first kind in a limited but growing subset of tasks.

In some constrained environments it’s getting harder to tell one kind of intelligence from the other.

II. “Knowledge but no theories”

Taleb claims that “theory” is fragile (despite being a hedgehog himself, he is explicitly against totalizing schemes). “Phenomenology” is more robust, because it makes fuller contact with reality. “Heuristics” and small fox-sized bits of practical knowledge or antifragile, as each little piece can be shaped by their contact with reality, and whole support beams and metaphysics and conjecture aren’t unnecessary and can even be harmful. Heuristics can benefit from errors, phenomenology can withstand errors, but generally theories are damaged by errors.

We often build computers to make theories that we can understand, and to relay the idea back to us using the language we provide for them.

It’s interesting to consider computers with alien knowledge, never to be communicated to us.


But a lot of HFTs simply don’t know what their strategy really is. They hunt for patterns in prices or orders, find a pattern that seems to work, and trade on it until it stops making money. They don’t have any idea why the pattern exists. Sometimes it only exists for a few seconds. In fact, if they stop to gather enough information about the pattern to figure out why it’s there, it often disappears! Actually, there are deep mathematical (information-theoretical) reasons to suspect that lots of HFT opportunities can only be exploited by those who are willing to remain forever ignorant about the reason those opportunities exist. It’s mind-bending (and incredibly interesting).

High Frequency Trading is an interesting avenue, and one that I know next to nothing about. David Brin has long been speculating aloud about the possibility that the money poured into HFT might accidentally drive the birth of emergent AI, and not the Friendly kind.

For perspective: Mike Travers also long ago wrote this bit on “Hostile AI” that exists here, today.


I was listening to a series on World War II.

Theory (Ideal, 1930’s): Strategic bombing would destroy the enemy’s capacity with precision, ending the war faster. Thus, bombing is a morally superior military option.

In Practice: Bombers cannot hit anything without hitting everything. Might as well area-bomb.

Rationalization: Fine. “Morale Bombing” will destroy the enemy’s will to fight and end the war faster through destruction and civilian outrage.

Practice: But “Terror Bombing” – that’s German for “Morale Bombing”–  inflicted on us will not destroy our resolve, and in fact only makes us hungrier for retaliation.

Problem: Bombers can be attacked by fighters during the day.

Solution: Bomb at night.

Implied: “We will now target at night what we could not hit during the day”.

A more nearby example here.

IV. Insiders

Continuous communication and highly overlapping worldviews are conditions for attempts at increased informational efficiency: jargon, mutual trust, epistemic closure, (and likely increased distrust for challengers to the bubble). The same systems that give us camaraderie among police officers or soldiers or members of the Intelligence community also give us institutionalized corruption, good ol’ boy networks, etc. These systems crop up because they work and they benefit their constituent actors. Explaining bad behavior doesn’t excuse it, sure.

In 2008, [Elizabeth] Warren joined a five-person congressional-oversight panel whose creation was mandated by the seven-hundred-billion-dollar bailout. She found that thrilling and maddening, too. In the spring of 2009, after the panel issued its third report, critical of the bailout, Larry Summers took Warren out to dinner in Washington and, she recalls, told her that she had a choice to make. She could be an insider or an outsider, but if she was going to be an insider she needed to understand one unbreakable rule about insiders: “They don’t criticize other insiders.” That’s about when Warren went on the Jon Stewart show, and you get the sense that, over that dinner, she decided to run for office.

Text Dump: Infantilization, Dreamlogs, Liberation through Laziness

I think this happens often- when your mind changes, the network of ideas that supported your previous worldview crumble a bit, and it becomes a little bit harder to earnestly work out why the old idea was so convincing. The new idea is just so obvious.

This blog has helped by acting as a repository for cached ideas and transition fossils from older ideas.

Today’s post is scattershot.

I. Twee/Infantilization

This bizarre article was recently shared with me, about “Cupcake Fascism“. There are a couple of interesting ideas in it, and my sharing is not advocacy, but it brought to mind this thread I never published and thought I would now.

As a person who has studied games and heard far too many lectures on them, human neoteny is a pretty common starting point for rambling about play behavior and its innateness to our species.

But recently, I’ve been thinking about the invention of the teenager, and the much ballyhooed infantilization of millenial young-adulthood.

From Teenagers: A 1944 Photo Essay on a New American Phenomenon:

There is a time in the life of every American girl when the most important ting in the world is to be one of a crowd of other girls and to act and speak and dress exactly as they do. This is the teen age.

Some 6,000,000 U.S. teen-age girls live in a world all their own — a lovely, gay, enthusiastic, funny and blissful society almost untouched by the war. It is a world of sweaters and skirts and bobby sox and loafers, of hair worn long, of eye-glass rims painted red with nail polish, of high school boys no yet gone to war. It is world still devoted to parents who are pals even if they use the telephone too much. It is a world of Vergil’s Aeneid, second-year French and plane geometry, of class plays, field hockey, “moron” jokes and put-on accents. It is a world of slumber parties and the Hit Parade, of peanut butter and popcorn and the endless collecting of menus and match covers and little stuffed animals.

I wonder, though, if the target demographic for “Young Adult” media is going up every year (by, say, a year). Am I being crotchety? Snobbish? I don’t mind graphic novels or cosplay or cartoons or YA novels or any of that, and I think people of all ages can appreciate those things. But something about the mainstreaming of children’s media in the (non-parent) adult world disturbs me. Bronies are the tip of the iceberg. Something is amiss here.

Maybe it’s a related problem to our obsession with nostalgia (was it always like this?). My childhood neighbors, babies who are now highschoolers, post “that feel” pictures about things that happened two years before. It’s got to be a parody of something that I must think is actually important but for the life of me I can’t articulate it. 

I came across this, which is comedy from a neurotic persona but I couldn’t stop nodding.

How bizarre would it be if the longer the lifespan a society can support, the longer the child-phase is allowed to continue? One would think the most productive phase would get the better cut of life: the late phase of “adulthood” stealing from the post-work phase of “elderly” life. Maybe people would delay childbirth into the “unnatural” range and do the 20’s thing for a decade longer. Maybe we’ll get pop ballads about the joys of being 32. Probably, though, we’ll just get freelancing or un(der)employed young adults and too-old-adults as an increasing chunk of the workforce and cultural focus.


II. Dreamlogging

  • I have been recording my dreams for a few years (since college).
  • The sooner I write it down after waking, the less coherent it is. It’s sometimes as though non-narrative details decay faster, like I move from a messy series of non-sequitors to a somewhat-related collage.
  • My dream decay outpaces my speed-of-hand.
  • Writing dreams has helped me to recall details of the dream, and might also be improving my recall of dreams upon waking although I don’t know how to test if that impression is true.
  • Stressful dreams are clearer. Even incredibly vivid happy ambient dreams decay very quickly (many “I forgot everything but what I felt” moments)
  • I lost a year of dreams when my phone broke. Felt bad.


III. “All Work is a Crime”

This interesting article on “Liberation through Laziness” was a source of a lot of conversation, but I never got around to posting about it.

Boredom is a modern concept. Just as people had gay sex before modern notions of homosexuality were around, this does of course not mean that premodern people never experienced states that we would now characterize as boredom. Rather, it means that boredom “in the modern sense that combines an existential and a temporal connotation” only become a theoretical concept and a problem in the late 18th century—in fact, the English term boredom emerged precisely in that moment, under the combined impact of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. As Elizabeth Goodstein puts it, boredom “epitomizes the dilemma of the autonomous modern subject,” linking “existential questions” to “a peculiarly modern experience of empty, meaningless time.”(23) Boredom became a crucial notion for the 1960s avant-garde in different ways. On the one hand, the Cagean neo-avant-garde (Fluxus) embraced boredom as a productive strategy; on the other, the Situationist International attacked boredom as a disastrous symptom of capitalism.
In the late 1960s, Situationist and pro-situ slogans such as “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary” and “there’s nothing they won’t do to raise the standard of boredom” made the term a battle cry, though it is not particularly prominent in Debord’s writings. Boredom for the SI was a symptom of the inhuman nature of capitalism. As Raoul Vaneigem put it: “We do not want a world in which the guarantee that we will not die of starvation is bought by accepting the risk of dying of boredom.”(24) Boredom is a kind of byproduct of industrial labor that creates new markets for entertainment, for while boredom during working hours is unavoidable and can only be alleviated in part by half-hearted measures (playing music to the workers), boredom also infects “free time,” where various leisure activities and the products of the entertainment industry are ready to help—if only, as the slogan has it, “to raise the standard of boredom.”

This piece is also reasonable introduction to the concept of chronopolitics, which honestly I saw for the first time only a few months ago, in Jordan Peacock’s paper “Cartographies of Power“.

From Jordan:

Chronopolitics and thermopolitics are closely related, in that both are tied to economic concerns; respectively, the expense of time and energy. Given a limited amount of time and energy, possibilities are necessarily constrained, leaving decisions to the fate of playing near-zero-sum games. Chronopolitics is at work in the strategic just-in-time scheduling that Wal-Mart and other major retailers use to suppress worker wages by maintaining many employees at below full time, but fragmenting their schedules enough that holding down second jobs become next to impossible. In another domain, thermopolitics is expressed in the grueling gauntlet put forth by some bureaucracies (notoriously, insurance companies) that, while not technically making a given action impossible, restricts access to only those willing and capable to exert the effort necessary to jump through all the hoops presented them

The idea of chrono/thermopolitics fits well with the states-of-matter metaphor that I was flinging around just about everywhere, late last year.

Somewhat related- I was at an event at my alma mater last week, and I was reminded of a rule my roommates and I coined some three years ago, The Law of [Dorm] 514: “There is no amount of hard work that can’t be emulated with a little ingenuity.” Not making t-shirts out of that one.

Mulling: Changing Minds

A healthy game of Argument Champion

A stirring game of Argument Champion

In the game “Argument Champion“, A little demon appears and shows you the thought bubbles of your audience’s beliefs [for example “I like headers” or “I dislike squids”]. Connect “positive” beliefs to your nonsense cause and “negative” ones to your opponent’s, by navigating a grid of related terms and trying to cover the smallest topological distance between terms as possible. It’s that easy!

For example, I was arguing in favor of “Driver”. Someone in the crowd had a positive feeling towards “Headers”, so I clicked on his thought bubble, leading me to a radial tree network where I can only see the neighboring concepts to “Header”. I selected one of the eight-or-so options, “Captain”, and from there I could see that “Driver” was immediately associated. That low distance between concepts is why I’m apparently an excellent debater.

Take a look at the game (it’s in-browser), it’s much easier to just sample than it is to explain in words, though I tried. I was reminded of this game when I started writing the post below.



This came up in discussion recently.

Similar posts: Guerrilla tacticsHow To Choke Your Enemies To Death

I took Aikido for a few years as a kid. I’m not supremely confident in my bullet-catching abilities, but it was good for me and I’m glad I did it.

Aikido is about using the opponent’s movement against him, instead of willfully overpowering him. It’s very throw-based, and usually the setup involves identifying and “leading” the opponent’s body and then turning it in a way he finds uncomfortable. To see it done well is viscerally very satisfying.

Sophism is a kind of rhetorical Aikido style. I’ve written before, channeling Huizinga, that the Sophists’ goals were not some higher Truth, but “excellence” (ie. victory in the game of “debate”). I could imagine the Sophist teaching the art in combat terms. What is the enemy’s position? How can we force them somewhere they don’t want to be? How can we turn the audience against them?

Before Plato poisoned the well, “Sophist” could be used as a positive or snide term, like “Intellectual” or “Elite” today. But we all know what sophistry means now- practiced “intellectual dishonesty”: you may not be lying but you are intentionally deceiving. You are likely taking the opponent on bad faith, leading his hand somewhere he didn’t mean so that you can throw him. In the rhetorical battlefield, often the one with fewest principles has the greatest leverage. An enlightened troll, thick-faced and black-hearted, is cynical enough to build any truth that’s convenient.

Many rogue states push for new human rights in international courts, and it isn’t because they were doing a stellar job with the old ones and are looking for new challenges. The goal there may be values-inflation and false-equivalence between the “classic” human rights violations of the dictatorship and the new, stranger rights that might find democratic nations in violation. The weapon is turned against its user.

Putin made a big speech on Crimea a couple of weeks ago, where he invoked Russian history and Western precedents that he wanted his actions compared to. Leaving aside whether the comparisons were apt, do you believe that Putin’s government’s decision-making took these Western precedents into account? Does he have a history of working within this broad, international legal framework that he presented that day? I don’t think it’s that controversial to say no, this was a cynical use of rhetoric.

The hate group that wishes to restrict someone else’s free speech happily hides behind it when convenient. Every aggressor in the modern world is waging a defensive war, obviously. The list goes on.


II. The Partisan Mind

via Slate:

Yale law school professor Dan Kahan’s new research paper is called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” but for me a better title is the headline on science writer Chris Mooney’s piece about it in Grist:  “Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math.”

Kahan conducted some ingenious experiments about the impact of political passion on people’s ability to think clearly.  His conclusion, in Mooney’s words: partisanship “can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills…. [People] who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.”



Explaining away cultures, from the community of Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Your post sends me back to The North American Review, which asked, in 1912, “Are the Jews an Inferior Race?” It answered the question, resoundingly, in the negative, but the more salient point is that the point was then very much in doubt. After the long centuries Jews spent in Europe marked as a minority, tolerated or persecuted, there was no shortage of thinkers willing to advance the claim that Jewish inferiority was innate, or at the very least, an ineradicable element of a broken culture. “Based on anthropology and biased by personal psychology,” explained the author, “anti-Semitic literature advances the theory that the Jewish race is divested of the higher forms of genius and is to be regarded as an uncreative, imitative, practical, and utilitarian body. Mental inferiority and spiritual impotency circulate accordingly in the very blood of the Jew.”

The article was, itself, a response to a letter in a previous issue that considered that the Jews, in “all their immiscibility,” had survived centuries without sovereignty only at the cost of producing, “a character so unattractive, even repellent, their shortcomings even in righteousness and their insignificance in everything else, without poetry, without science, without art, and without character.”

That’s one example. There are innumerable others. My point is that, at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to conclude that Jewish culture, whether innate or the product of prolonged persecution, had itself become a significant impediment to success. But that, a century later, it seems impossible to reconcile the idea that Jewish culture was the problem with the record of success that Jews produced over the following hundred years, in those nations in which they were not similarly persecuted.

Now, we get Jed Rubenfeld explaining how that same culture—formerly blamed for Jewish inferiority—is actually a distinct advantage. And just so, a hundred years from now, there will be bestsellers explaining how black culture, forged in centuries of adversity, accounts for the remarkable success of the African-American community. The point is that the same sets of cultural characteristics operate very differently in different circumstances. And to focus on the culture—rather than the circumstances—seems obtuse.


From Counterculture to Cyberculture III

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Part 1 here: broad overview and tracing through the changing connotation of the “Computational Metaphor” from one of dehumanization and control to one of anonymity, equality, and freedom.

Part 2 here: On Stewart Brand’s education and the Whole Earth Network.

This is the part with digital communities.

I’m turning up the speed on these notes. The whole book is interesting, can’t rewrite everything. For example, a lot about Xerox PARC and SRI is cut out because I feel it is more commonly known stuff.



The New Communalist movement was dead by the 80’s. Its component communes were emptying out for a variety of reasons: politics, economics, and (predominantly) poor organization. Some took refuge in the New Age movement or in the small religious revivals of the 70’s. Many returned to the mainstream in time to enjoy some incredible economic failings.

So the counterculture died, but as I’ve written several times over the months, it did leave behind values and artifacts ripe for re-appropriating by other cultures. Through connecting the social groups and giving voice to some of their unifying concerns, Stewart Brand seeded the hacker movement with the New Communalist rhetoric.

“As early as 1972, Brand had suggested that computers might become the new LSD, a new small technology that could be used to open minds and reform society.” [Cue 1984 Apple commercial. You know the one.]

In a piece he was commissioned to write for Rolling Stone [“Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death among the Computer Bums”], he made the Spacewar computer game programmers into countercultural pioneers. Brand wrote about Alan Kay and his Dynabook, ARPANET, and Resource One. “Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.”

Turner: “Hackers, [Brand wrote], were not mere ‘technicians’ but ‘a mobile newfound elite, with its own apparatus, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.'”



Alan Kay and others found the Whole Earth Catalog, and saw it as both an information tool (with a great DIY ethos, etc.) and a hyperlinked information system. “We thought of the Whole Earth Catalog as a print version of what the Internet was going to be.”

“The Catalog performed similar ideological work within two other groups that would play an important role in the imagining the use of computers in countercultural terms: the People’s Computer Company and Resource One.” PCC was heavily inspired by the Catalog and made that very clear in its content- sometimes excerpts from the Catalog, sometimes advertising/selling books by Catalog-connected writers. Resource One was composed of programmers who left UC Berkeley in protest of the Cambodian invasion. It was partially funded by Fred Moore’s “Demise Party money”, and it aimed to “establish public computing terminals at several locations in the Bay area, with an eye toward creating a peer-to-peer information exchange.” Although the abstract idea was thought of in New Left/New Communalist movements before, the idea of doing something like this without a computer (outside of SRI and Xerox PARC)

Time magazine, special issue- Stewart Brand writes an article titled “Welcome to Cyberspace”: “Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution.”

[Turner:] “According to Brand, and to popular legend then and since, Bay area computer programmers had imbibed the countercultural ideals of decentralization and personalization, along with a keen sense of information’s transformative potential, and had built those into a new kind of machine.” It is true-ish rendition of what happens, more selective than false, and certainly claimable in some respects.



Twenty years after the Whole Earth Catalog’s first publication, another network arose using the same model: the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), started by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985.

[Larry Brilliant quick bio: technologist and epidemiologist, some counterculture ties including appearing as a doctor in a hit hippie movie in the era, leading figure in the WHO’s smallpox eradication program. Much later would head (the philanthropic arm of Google), and the Skoll Foundation. Impressive arc in its own right.]

It was the first virtual community of its kind, an influential template for future such communities. It was also in itself an influential network of thinkers, writers, and Grateful Dead fans. It was originally a “dial-up bulletin board system”, and evolved with the infrastructure of the commercial internet as it developed.

Kevin Kelly [editor of Catalog-spinoff “CoEvolution Quarterly” and future exec editor of Wired] on the seven design goals:

That it be free. This was a goal, not a commitment. We knew it wouldn’t be exactly free but it should be as free (cheap) as we could make it…

It should be profit making… after much hard, low-paid work by Matthew and Cliff, this is happening. The WELL is at least one of the few operating large systems going that has a future.

It would be an open-ended universe…

It would be self-governing…

It would be a self-designing experiment… the early users were to design the system for later users. The usage of the system would co-evolve with the system as it was built…

It would be a community, one that reflected the nature of the “Whole Earth” publications. I think that worked out fine.

Business users would be its meat and potatoes. Wrong…

Turner: “Ultimately, [Grateful Dead’s John Perry] Barlow argued that cyberspace offered what LSD, Christian mysticism, cybernetics, and countercultural “energy” theory had all promised: transpersonal communion. ‘In this silent world, all conversation is typed. To enter it, one forsakes both body and place and becomes a thing of words alone. […] As a result of [the opening of cyberspace], humanity is now undergoing the most profound transformation of its history. Coming into the Virtual World, we inhabit Information. Indeed, we become Information. Thought is embodied and Flesh is made Word. It’s weird as hell.’ […] Framed as the disembodied, non-hierarchical, high-tech home of computer hackers and other independent types, cyberspace, and its prototypical system, the WELL, constituted fitting alternatives to corporate and governmental hives. In the cybernetic style familiar to readers of the Whole Earth Catalog and CoEvolution Quarterly, Barlow held out cyberspace as a simultaneously technological, biological, and social system.”



Ronald Reagan: “In the new economy, human invention increasingly makes physical resources obsolete. We’re breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny.”

In the late eighties and early nineties, Silicon Valley’s innovations scaled out across the world at increasing pace. The WELL and her related groups were used as intellectual and social capital for Brand and Kelly:

Each created new network forums in which formerly distinct communities could come together, exchange legitimacy, and become visible, to one another and to outsiders, as a single entity. In Brand’s case, these communities included representatives of MIT’s Media Lab and the Stanford Research Institute and officers of such corporate giants as Royal Dutch/Shell, Volvo, and AT&T, as well as former New Communalists. In the late 1980s Brand helped turn these individuals into the principals and clients of a small but highly influential consulting firm, the Global Business Network. For his part, Kevin Kelly linked computer simulation experts affiliated with Los Alamos National Laboratory and its offshoot, the Santa Fe Institute, to prairie ecologists, Biospherians, and programmers at Xerox PARC. In a 521-page volume entitled “Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization”, Kelly transformed these scientists and their projects into prototypical representatives of what he claimed was a new era in human evolution.

Turner compares these networks to the Cold War Military-Industrial Complex [on the inside, with their trading zones and interdisciplinarity, not the view from the outside as a Monolith]. These new networks “acquired a new political valence”, as “models of a collaborative world, a world in which technologies were rending information systems visible, material production processes irrelevant, and bureaucracy obsolete.”

Restless (and capable of leaving the surviving networks to their own machination), Stewart Brand left the area for a while. He attended one of the first of Richard Saul Wurman’s TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences and “heard Nicholas Negroponte describe his plans for MIT’s new Media Lab.” It reminded him of an old vision he had to turn the Whole Earth Catalog crew into a research group. He wrote to Negroponte, got a three-month appointment, and moved into Alan Kay’s house. “Surrounded by computer scientists, musicians, and artists, all linked together by e-mail, Brand began to imagine the Lab as an emblem of a techno-tribal future. In that future, as in the New Communalist past, independent interdisciplinarians would take up tools, transform their individual mind-sets, and establish new collectivities built on a shared delight in innovation.” He would write his best-selling profile of the Lab, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, which threaded the Media Lab through two histories: one from the Rad Lab of World War II, and one from the countercultural revolution, through the computer labs of the 1980’s. Like other networks, the Media Lab made demos and was also itself a demo, a prototype for a kind of culture.



The Global Business Network was founded by Peter Schwartz, Jay Ogilvy, Stewart Brand, Napier Collyns, and Lawrence Wilkinson. In its early years, corporate clients would pay annually to access their network through a private website, access materials, and attend training and learning seminars.

Peter Schwartz knew Stewart from their counterculture days (he wrote some for the Whole Earth Review). Schwartz would become a director at the Strategic Environment Center at SRI International. He would then become the head of scenario planning at Royal Dutch/Shell, where they impressively protected Shell against oil shocks using a method of “scenario planning” developed by futurist Herman Kahn.

Schwartz hired Brand to “organize a series of networking events known as the Learning Conferences; those events in turn gave rise to a network organization that, like the Media Lab, would have a substantial impact on public perceptions of digital technology and the New Economy.”

“At the height of the cold war, countercultural artists and communards had hoped to create alternative to bureaucratic technocracy. Now, in the late 1980’s, as the cold war wound to a close, Brand, [Arie] de Geus, and Schwartz melded countercultural and cybernetic rhetoric, practice, and social theory to help corporate executives model and manage their work lives in a post-Fordist economy. The learning networks would model the networks that Brand had worked on before: artifacts that were also networks, environments that can teach and be taught, and social networks that would interconnect. Participants were invited to private conferences and, later, to the WELL.

Jay Ogivly was hired by Schwartz at the SRI and became the director of research for the SRI Values and Lifestyles Program (marketing research), and the two “wanted to design a consulting firm that could take advantage of the networks and networking mind-set that had begun to emerge around the Learning Conferences.” In 1987 these two brought together the other Global Business Network cofounders: Stewart Brand, Napier Collyns (from Shell), and Lawrence Wilkinson (“a Bay area financier and media producer who was president of Colossal Pictures [film and TV]”).

Schwartz envisioned three things GBN would do: “plug [clients into a network of remarkable people… include them in a highly focused and filtered information flow, and… reorganize their perceptions about alternative futures through the scenario method.”



“For founders of GBN, computers were only one of several forces driving the leveling of bureaucracies and the rise of networked patterns of organization. […] for Kevin Kelly, in contrast, computers became signal emblems of a new era in human development”: neobiological civilization.

Kevin Kelly became editor of CoEvolution Quarterly (CQ) [again, a spinoff of Whole Earth Catalog that Brand had launched] in 1984. He was deeply involved in the turn away from the back-to-the-land movements and toward digital technologies. He published writers who appeared on WELL, got interested in early virtual reality, compiled Cyberpunk reading lists, interviewed prominent digital entrepreneurs and researchers and writers like William Gibson, and in 1990 he published “Crime and Puzzlement”, where Barlow “first used the word cyberspace to describe the digital frontier”.

In 1987, the Santa Fe Institute, Apple Computer, and the Center for Nonlinear Studies at Los Alamos National Lab sponsored the first Artificial Life Conference. To Kelly this conference validated the “long-standing Whole Earth embrace of systems theory.” His experiences were compiled in his book Out of Control. He brought together four communities in his reporting: the “descendants of the cold war research world [Los Alamos, Xerox PARC, MIT’s Media Lab], Whole Earth affiliates [the WELL, ecologists], designers and theorists in “new forms of computing” [Sim Earth, artificial life, multiple-user dungeons], and corporations [“Benetton, Pixar, Disney”]. He wrote of bee swarms as social systems held together by the exchange of information, basically without hierarchy. He wrote about crowdsourcing and collective computing.


The Atom is the icon of 20th century science… The Atom whirls alone, the epitome of singleness. It is the metaphor for individuality: atomic. It is the irreducible seat of strength. The Atom stands for power and knowledge and certainty. It is as dependable as a circle, as regular as round. […]

Another Zen thought: The Atom is the past. The symbol of science for the next century is the dynamical Net.

The Net icon has no center- it is a bunch of dots connect to other dots-  a cobweb of arrows pouring into each other, squirming together like a nest of snakes, the restless image fading at indeterminate edges. The Net is the archetype- always the same picture- displayed to represent all circuits, all intelligence, all interdependence, all things economic and social and ecological, all communications, all democracy, all groups, all large systems.

Markets were like this system, “distributed, decentralized, collaborative, and adaptive.” Firms were like organisms.

By the mid-nineties, Brand and Kelly’s wave of projects to that point were mostly self-sustaining- the Global Business Network, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the WELL, etc.

By 1995 Brand cofounded the Long Now Foundation and its project to build a Ten Thousand Year Clock. Kevin Kelly helmed Wired magazine, a symbol of the Digital Revolution.



Wired founder and editor-in-chief Louis Rossetto: “There are a lot of magazines about technology. Wired is not one of them. Wired is about the most powerful people on the planet today- the Digital Generation. These are the people who not only foresaw how the merger of computers, telecommunications and the media is transforming life at the cusp of the new millennium, they are making it happen.”

Wired Magazine became a touchstone. “Thanks in part to a confluence of extraordinary economic, technological, and political currents, its technocentric optimism became a central feature of the biggest stock market bubble in American history.” Other New Economy publications sprung up all around it.

Jane Metcalfe, cofounder and president (and Rossetto’s wife): “The ’60s generation had a lot of power, but they didn’t have a lot of tools. And in many respects their protests were unable to implement long-term and radical change in our society. We do have the tools. The growth of the Internet and the growing political voice of the people on the Internet is proof of that.”

The governing myth of the end of the century had developed, that America could be freed by the apparently rigid 20th century bureaucracies: “market populism”, embodied across the political spectrum and in the business world. Some of these beliefs anti-system beliefs were attributed to the New Left of the 60s, but Turner has argued that these beliefs were more directly influenced by the New Communalists.

Rossetto himself was at Columbia during the days of the SDS and the increasingly violent police/protest feedback. He was the president of the Young Republicans, though by his junior year “he had begun to think of himself as a libertarian anarchist.” He brought together a circle of the like-minded to read “Wilhelm Reich’s calls for sexual freedom”, McLuhan and Ayn Rand.

Rossetto and Stan Lehr in The New York Ties Magazine [“The New Right Credo- libertarianism”], 1977: “Liberalism, conservatism, and leftist radicalism are all bankrupt philosophies. The only question at issue among their adherents is which gang of crooks and charlatans is to rule society, and for what noble purpose.” [A much older Rosetto recalled: “It wasn’t the Buckleyite conservatism that got me- it was the individualist, anti-statist conservatism that got me.”] Like the New Communalists, he became anti-political. “You have to start with yourself.” He wrote, moved to Europe, met his wife, and created a magazine that would be called Electric Word, that Kevin Kelly would give a positive review. Rossetto would begin coming back to the US to try to bring the magazine there, meeting with journalists (including Kelly).

Electric Word would go out of business but Rossetto and Metcalfe would move to the USA, to start a new lifestyle-and-technology magazine, Millenium (later renamed Wired). He brought the prototype magazine to TED, and Nicholas Negroponte loved it, investing $75k for a 10% stake and promising to write a monthly column. He also brought other investors on board. Rossetto and Metcalfe would start a conference on the WELL, and Bruce Katz (then-head of the WELL) referred them to Schwartz, who brought in GBN cofounder Lawrence Wilkinson to become the chief financial strategist. Kevin Kelly finally signed on as executive editor. Thus Wired was thoroughly stitched into the whole fabric of the Whole Earth network.

Rossetto, 1997: “The mainstream media is not allowing us to understand what’s really happening today because it’s obsessed with telling you, ‘Well, on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand'”.

Turner: “Under conditions of digital revolution, Rossetto believed that a magazine could tell the truth- and achieve distinction- only by ‘not being objective’.”

Rossetto and Metcalfe described their target audience in 1992 as “Digital Visionaries”, average income $75k, the top 10% of “creators, managers, and professionals in the computer industries, business, design, entertainment, the media, and education.” After its third year, Wired was selling 300k/month, 87.9% male, avg 37 years old, $122k income, 90% “professional/managerial” or “Top Management”.

“Wired was not, by and large, opening a window on the world of the WELL per se. Rather, its editors were using their links to the WELL to a variety of other Whole Earth networks and organizations in order to conjure up and legitimate a particular social vision.”

The WELL network was beneath Wired. Wired itself could interface with people who would have found the New Communalists distasteful. The New Right could reference and be referenced by Wired. Newt Gingrich, Esther Dyson, and George Gilder [libertarian telecommunications analyst] could become involved in a “cycle of mutual legitimation”.

Wired nearly IPO’d for some truly insane figures, but Goldman Sachs would withdraw, and a few years later the big bubble busted.

Needless to say, the ideology has survived intact.

I’ll stop here.


From Counterculture to Cyberculture II

From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Part I here: A broad overview, tracing through the changing connotation of the “Computational Metaphor” from one of dehumanization and control to one of anonymity, equality, and radical freedom.

I often get bogged down in the details because there’s so much interesting here. I’ll be trying to wean off of that habit. Didn’t really succeed here, but at least I occasionally took the opportunity to explain my interest some of the details I highlight.

[Edit: This post has some occasional typos. I rushed it out, and will smooth it over soon.]


It’s a shame that the environmentalist movement is mostly solidly anti-nuclear. Even considering the scariness of the “Normal Accident” problem, it should seem to the modern environmentalist that a re-calibration is needed on the issue [due to climate change]. Wind and solar are wonderful, but another resource (almost always of the ‘dirty’ variety) will always need to be on standby for “cloudy or windless days”. Storage and location are still major problems. Our idea of what a nuclear plant looks and feels like is decades old. The public idea of what radiation is and what it does and what levels are acceptable and its carcinogenic potential, are all still mysterious and mostly dated. Nuclear France is kicking solar Germany’s ass on carbon footprint metrics. Barring a jarring global event, knowledge of nuclear energy/weapons are never going away, and nuclear power if anything has reduced the number of nukes in the world through use of old warheads as material. Finally, and this should be obvious, a nuclear bomb is not a world-ending calamity- the more cogent fear is of a massive volley of ICBMs criss-crossing the air between global powers. The nuke [singular] decimating your hometown was a personal fear, a scary and heavily-proliferated image. But nukes [plural] were the real human-existential threat.

It made sense in the ’70’s, especially among the young Left movements, to be anti-nuclear anything. Having grown up in the shadow of The Bomb, developing a deep and growing distrust of the governing institutions and whatnot. Stewart Brand was predictably anti-nuclear growing up (he has since changed position, presumably for similar reasons to the scramble of points I made above, since they were all points in a recent documentary I read that he was behind).

Alongside this fear of the bomb was the fear of the aftermath: a Soviet invasion or an emulation of the Soviets [or the Fascist threat before them] in mechanizing and becoming a war-bound society- in both scenarios the individual would become a number, a pawn. If not annihilation of the bomb, fear of an annihilation of the self was another key driver in this cohort, the way this story has it.

Again, clear in the imagination of the time was the juxtaposition of the Soviet Army with the gray suited Organization Man, “cut off from his emotions, trained to follow a chain a command, the Soviet soldier and the American middle manager alike seemed to many to be little more than worker bees inside ever-growing hives of military-industrial bureaucracy.” The bureaucratic machine birthed the nuke in the 40’s and would birth Vietnam in the 60’s. The key question for Brand’s generation: “How could they keep the world from being destroyed by nuclear weapons or by the large-scale, hierarchical governmental and industrial bureaucracies that had built and used them? And how could they assert and preserve their own holistic individuality in the face of such a world?”



Brand’s answer to this question started with ecology and “a systems-oriented view of the natural world.” After graduating an serving as an army draftee, he drifted into the art world, a world whose shape was outlined in The Democratic Surround. According to Turner, the “art worlds of the 1960’s” began to structurally resemble “the research worlds of the 1940’s”, living “by networking, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.”

Brand’s exposure to ecological thought started with professor Paul Ehrlich, later famous for The Population Bomb. During this time, systems-thought had replaced the single-species taxonomic thought of pre-war science. Lily Kay wrote that in the ’50’s, microbiology became “a communication science, allied to cybernetics, information theory, and computers.” According to Turner, in the textbook Ehrlich co-wrote with Richard Holm, The Process of Evolution, he “offered a vision of life as ‘a complex energy-matter nexus […] For Ehrlich and Holm, the classic dualities of mind and matter, actor and action, masked a series of more essential truths: individuals were elements within systems and were systems in their own right. As such, they both responded to and helped shape the flows of energy that governed all matter. [More on this thought here.] This was also true for humans at a cultural level: according to Ehrlich and Holm, culture had grown out of man’s biological evolution and had become a force through which humans could recursively influence their biological development. For Ehrlich and Holm, and the young Stewart Brand, cultural activities such as politics, art, conversation, and play took on a deep significance for the survival of the species.”

Brand spent a decade or so “migrating” through a “wide variety of bohemian, scientific, and academic communities.” Some of these communities were wide-reaching, ideologically communalist. Other groups were focused on “local social practices”, like making art or taking LSD or running a business meeting.

Soon after graduating from Stanford, Brand was drafted, becoming an infantryman, then deciding to become a Ranger (!) and then quitting halfway through and becoming an army photographer. In the early 60’s he would meet a San Francisco painter (Steve Durkee), who lived in lower-Manhattan. Brand would visit there and see the scenes- the influential John Cage was there, the painter Rauschenberg, the performance artist Allan Kaprow.

Cage’s view of Zen: [Within Zen nature was “an interrelated field or continuum, no part of which can be separated from or valued above the rest.” Turner claims that “In keeping with Zen tradition, Cage argued that the artist should not speak to his or her audience about the natural world, but should instead use art to heighten the audience member’s sensitivity to experiences of all kinds.”

Cage: “The highest purpose [of an artist] is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation.” The objective consciousness has no place in art.

Rauschenberg: “I don’t want painting to be just an expression of my personality. And I am opposed to the whole idea of conception-execution- of getting an idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I’ve always felt as though, whatever I’ve used and whatever I’ve done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control.”

Critic/Professor Leonard B. Meyer argued that these “American artists had begun to work with the premise that ‘Man is no longer… the center of the universe’ and that the universe itself, as revealed by quantum physic, was an indeterminate system.” For Brand, though, it was an affirmation of the Ehrlich school of thought.



After discharge (1962), Brand would travel to “the artistic bohemians of New York City and the emerging hippie scene in Haight-Ashbury [USCO, where Brand surely took drugs, read Wiener and McLuhan and Fuller, experienced ‘Happenings’].”, Indian reservations, Ken Kesey’s circle, psych researchers, and a series of communes. Studies in new ways of living.

Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters” are sort of notorious in some circles- the influential psychedelics-promoting group of writers and artists who lived communally for a while, and took a long road-trip across America. Brand represented, as Tom Wolfe put it, “the restrained, reflective wing of the Merry Pranksters”, and didn’t go on that roadtrip. Brand saw the Pranksters as a West Coast version of “USCO’s techno-tribalism”, feeding off of the California Beatnik scene instead of the New York cold war avante-garde scene.

New Communalist Kesey is invited to New Left rally against the Vietnam war. Kesey gets up and says, “You know, you’re not gonna stop this war with this rally, by marching… That’s what they do.” Then he plays Home on the Range with his harmonica. The New Communalist movement was about “politics of consciousness”, not about engaging in contemporary, social politics as the New Left was.

Also of note, although the Pranksters were less formally hierarchical and rigid than the New Left, they did have a single, de facto leader- Kesey, “The Chief”. He would deny or downplay his power, but it was his money and his voice that powered the Pranksters across America. They would play games to make decisions (spin-the-bottle with the winner having total control for 30 minutes; consulting the I Ching) both were voluntary, individual-empowering, and both served as diversions from Kesey’s true power.”In a pattern that would become familiar around the digital technologies of the 1990’s, [the Pranksters assigned their power], at least temporarily and at least symbolically, to devices.

Brand collaborated with Kesey and others on the “Trips Festival” and other big parties and multimedia events. He tried to create “holistic media environments of the kind favored by USCO and the Merry Pranksters.”


IV. An Aside on Communes

“…Yet, even though it aimed to draw commune dwellers closer to themselves and their fellow citizens, the antinomian celebration of consciousness and its pursuit through the deployment of small-scale technologies and hands-on work did not prevent either social friction or the reassertion of traditional gender roles and racial politics.”

There’s a problem with the idea of structurelessness, and that problem is that no such thing exists. Structureless, with regards to humans, means tribal. Wired magazine recently quoted Jo Freeman from “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (the above link) in this article on recent retreads of the same fundamental error:

The problem with supposedly non-hierarchical groups, she wrote, is that power structures are invisible–and therefore unaccountable. That inevitably leads to dysfunction and abuse. Charismatic leaders could use their position to advance their own agenda, award desirable tasks and projects to an “in group,” and shift blame for mistakes.

In my post about totalitarianism I also quoted an article that introduced this idea while introducing Turner’s New Left vs New Communalist dichotomy:

Bureaucratic systems are actually really good systems for distributing resources. You have to negotiate. You have to express explicitly what resources exist and how they should be distributed. In a communal system built around shared consciousness, what starts to happen is that people with charisma start to lead and cultural norms kick in. Communes ended up being places that were deeply racially divided, even though none of them would ever cop to being explicitly racist or wouldn’t even want to be. Gender norms were incredibly conservative on communes. I don’t know how many photographs I’ve looked at of young women, pregnant, barefoot, carrying loaves of bread.

And by the way, communes outside of the New Communalist tradition generally had different defaults on social structure (more equitable child-rearing in some communes, often with a different view of the nuclear family, and an opportunity for women to have relationships without reference to their partnerships with men?). But the “neoprimitive tribal ideal” in the New Communalist communes were generally more like settlers than tribesmen.

Other problems abounded in the New Communalist diaspora, socially and financially.



Stewart Brand:

One afternoon, probably in March in 1966, dropping a little bit of LSD, I went up onto the roof and sat shivering in a blanket sort of looking and thinking… And so I’m watching the building, looking out at San Francisco, thinking of Buckminster Fuller’s notion that people think of the earth’s resources as unlimited because they think of the earth as flat. I’m looking at San Francisco from 300 feet and 200 micrograms up and thinking that I can see from here that the earth is curved. I had the idea that the higher you go the more you can see earth as round.

There were no public photographs of the whole earth at that time, despite the fact that we were in the space program for about ten years. I started scheming within the trip. How can I make this photograph happen? Because I have now persuaded myself that it will change everything if we can have this photograph looking at the earth from space.

“The next week, Brand printed up a batch of buttons that read, “Why Haven’t We Seen a Photograph of the Whole Earth yet?” He and his wife would eventually start the Whole Earth Catalog, “featuring a smorgasbord of books, mechanical devices, and outdoor recreational gear.” No narrative, just artifacts. Pick your own purpose. The Catalog didn’t accept orders, but it did accept recommendations and comments. It was not a book or a magazine or a mail-order outlet. It was a single textual space that connected distinct countercultures and identified Stewart Brand as an essential link, a cultural broker.

Turner: “The space in turn became a network forum- a place where members of these communities came together, exchanged ideas and legitimacy, and in the process synthesized new intellectual frameworks and new social networks. By coining the term network forum I aim to bridge two important ideas in science and technology studies: Peter Galison’s notion of the “trading zone” and Susan Leigh Star and James Griesemer’s “boundary object”.

More Turner on this term:

A network forum displays the properties of both a trading zone and a boundary object. Like the boundary object, it can be a media formation such as a catalog or an online discussion system aronud or within which individuals can gather and collaborate without relinquishing their attachment to their home networks. But like a trading zone, it is also a place within which new networks can be built, not only for social purpose, but for the purpose of accomplishing work. Within the network forum, as within the trading zone, contributors create new rhetorical tools with which to express and facilitate their new collaborations. Network forums need not be confined to media. Think tanks, conferences, even open-air markets – all can serve as forums in which one or more entrepreneurs gather members of multiple networks, allow them to communicate and collaborate, and so facilitate the formation of both new networks and new contact languages. Media-based network forums such as the “Whole Earth Catalog”, however, are in part built out of these new languages and are in part sites for their display. Ultimately, the forum themselves often become prototypes of the shared understandings around which they are built.

More soon. Check out the Whole Earth Catalog here. A gold mine.


VI. The Demise Party

One last anecdote.

On June 21, 1971, Stewart Brand threw a party to celebrate “what he thought was the final edition of the Whole Earth Catalog publishing project. He invited 500 friends and staffers to the event, and essentially offered for them to vote on how to allocate $20,000 to any cause, and any guest could approach the mic to appeal to a cause. By the next morning, a tired crowd voted on a solution. By then, $5,000 or so dollars had simply disappeared, but the remaining 15k was given “to one Frederick L. Moore, who promised to put the money in a bank and reconvene the last twenty people at the party in a month to decide what to do with it.”

These things happen.

Turner: “What ultimately became of the money remains unclear, but Moore’s fate does not. In the spring of 1975, along with Gordon French, he founded the Homebrew Computer Club.”

From the Whole Earth Catalog, demonstrating the focus on DIY, pragmatic, small-scale tech:

An item is listed in the CATALOG if it is deemed:

  1. Useful as a tool,
  2. Relevant to independent education,
  3. High quality or low cost,
  4. Not already common knowledge
  5. Easily available by mail.


More later.